CLINTON, N.Y.-- For the sixth year, the Daniel Barden Mudfest in Deansboro will honor one of the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting.
Daniel Barden was the best friend of race organizer Daniel Williams' niece. He was in first grade when a gunman opened fire on the elementary school in Connecticut in 2012.
"That little boy used to hold the door for me when I would go to my sister's house, he embodied that spirit," Williams said.
For Williams, school shootings represent permanently unfulfilled potential.
"It pretty much turned our world upside down," Williams said. "I was that kid, I was always getting yelled at for getting too dirty or whatever when I was a kid."
Williams has hosted the Daniel Barden Mudfest at MKJ Farms since 2013, and the event has grown each year. Runners are led through an obstacle course, and there are options for beginners and more experienced athletes.
Proceeds from the event benefit different charities each year, and the vehicle for selecting those charities is a point of pride for Williams.
Eight eighth-graders from central New York are chosen, along with more from Newtown, Connecticut. Each student selects a charity to receive a portion of the proceeds. The goal is to inspire children to improve their own communities.
"We're hoping through this, we can get them to have a conversation," Williams said. "Because us adults, we're not doing such a good job of solving this problem."
The selected eighth-graders are also invited to participate in a ten-day canoe adventure in the Adirondacks, where they learn navigation, wilderness and leadership skills.
"It's just that perfect age to immerse them in the outdoors," Williams said. "Maybe they're not the smartest, maybe they're not the most athletic, they're those kids we want to kind of pull out of their shell."
One recipient of the Barden Adventure Scholarship said the experience helped her gain confidence before entering high school.
"I was nervous to go into high school because of being surrounded by a bunch of different people and I'm not good at making friends," Isabella Ciancio, who earned the scholarship in 2016 said. "Everyone came from different places, some didn't even do sports, some weren't athletic, but we all made it through the trip together. It helped me open up around other people."
"She's not really an outdoorsy type, and not very athletic, so I was nervous about her going," Susan Ciancio, Isabella's mother said. "She did a great job. She felt much more comfortable and independent."
Both mother and daughter said confidence and independence are important qualities to have in high school, when the pressure to bully or be bullied can feel overwhelming.
"It's very important, because I know that first of all, she wouldn't be swayed by other people," Susan said.
"High schoolers commit violence against their peers if they're bullied," Isabella said. "The trip made me realize that other people are just like me sometimes. I really learned to see what other people can do and not like, judge them."
Applications for this year's Barden Adventure Scholarship are due Mar. 31. The applications can be found here on the Mudfest website, along with more information about the race.
Event organizers are still seeking local business sponsors, along with volunteers for race day.
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